Cast: Manickam, Master.Ashwin, Suruli, Prasanna, Kumar
Seththumaan, director Thamizh's debut film, begins slowly and almost cautiously, an animated prologue warming us up for the violent realities of its world. Once into the film, we see greener pastures. We meet an old man, Poochiyappan (Manickam), a basket-maker, walking his young grandson, Kumaresan (Ashwin Shiva), to his first day at school.
From right here, writers Perumal Murugan (story-dialogue) and Thamizh (screenplay) begin showing us the lives of the people in their world with great clarity and detail. Kumaresan is mocked in school for eating "all kinds of meat," an idea he doesn't comprehend. Poochiyappan is exploited by the landlord's wife, making him do unpaid work and undercutting the price for his baskets. Pigsty owner Rangan is the fiery revolutionary, who fights for respect and equality, which almost feels futile. Kandhayi is Poochiyappan's friend and sometimes Kumaresan's babysitter.
The interactions between these people are intimate, while also being laced with political intuition that can only come from lived experience. Perumal Murugan and Thamizh pack every scene with complex political ideas around untouchability, discrimination, access to education, casteism, and even capitalism with the lighthandedness of someone who navigates it every day. For instance, at a tea shop, Rangan fights for his right to be served tea in the same cup as upper caste customers. Poochiyappan rejects the idea, "I am wondering if I should drink from the same glass they did," he says. And walks away nonchalantly back to his work.
Pratheep Kaliraja's handheld camerawork lends a sense of volatility and reality to Seththumaan, just like the dialogues, which sometimes feel uncinematic to those of us whose minds are filled with punchlines and references. Bindu Malini is tender with her music, only once or twice breaking character to underline the absurdness of people's behaviour. Where Bindu Malini is restrained, sound designer Anthony BJ Ruben is generous with atmospheric sounds — birds, wind, cracking of fire, and so on, periodically highlighting the deafening silence of indifference that fills the atmosphere the film captures.
The most remarkable thing about Seththumaan, however, is the stoicism with which the film captures stomach-churning realities. The oppressed aren't suffering discrimination silently, they demand their rights often. Yet, the oppression is omnipresent. We can imagine how tiring it would be to fight every micro- and macro-aggression one is made to endure. Even among themselves, the characters discuss casteist murder with only a mild sense of melancholy. The film is dated by the radio commentary around India's President Ram Nath Kovind taking office, lest you imagine this to be happening in the distant past.
The third act, which is really the story of the titular Seththumaan, which literally means pig, is intricate, yet measured. Like the rest of the film, it is slow, elaborate, and deliberately realistic. It builds up with barely a tinge of friction at each step, so the ending, even if expected, is both shocking and heart-wrenching. The aftermath is even more soul-crushing, for its matter-of-fact-ly treatment — the long shot of the landlord and his cousin fleeing the scene is one that will haunt our memories for a long time to come.
This stoicism is Seththumaan's strength. Thamizh retains the timbre of a short story, craftily accentuating it with visual and aural layers that bring it to life without dramatising for effect.